Last week was a pretty momentous occasion for my oldest child. As a third grader, he spent the week taking his first actual standardized test (yes, it took a whole week). This might not seem to be too big of a deal to most people, but considering I wrote my dissertation on how teachers prepare students for standardized tests and the motivational implications of high stakes testing in schools, it was a big deal to me!
I was happy that the experience was not at all traumatic for my son. He took it like a champ and was mostly just excited for a week with no homework.
I know from my research on this topic that, unfortunately, the experience of taking standardized tests in school is not always as carefree for all students as it was for my child. The introduction of high stakes standardized testing can be stressful for teachers and for students, and can cause anxiety, boredom, and other negative reactions. In the face of pressure to achieve high scores, students and even teachers may be tempted to cheat, especially if teachers feel that their jobs may be on the line if students do not achieve sufficient scores.
Other negative consequences of the implementation of standardized tests include narrowing of curriculum to focus only on tested subjects, loss of instructional time spent preparing for and actually taking the test, and teaching directly to the test rather than teaching topics and issues that are important and interesting to teachers and students. Additionally, test scores are often misunderstood by teachers, students, and parents, so the emphasis on testing in schools seems even more arbitrary when the results of the tests are not even used in a meaningful way.
While these negative consequences of testing are widely acknowledged, there are important reasons why standardized tests are necessary as a means of tracking student achievement of grade level standards and year-to-year growth. Federal education policies also mandate the use of testing to hold public schools and teachers accountable for student learning. Although private Catholic schools are not necessarily subject to the federal accountability pressure, they are often expected to share general student achievement results in order to market their schools as offering a high quality academic education.
So, since the practice of standardized testing is not going anywhere anytime soon, what can teachers do to minimize the negative consequences of testing for students? The answer lies in open, honest communication about testing and focusing on learning rather than performance.
Many students have questions and concerns about why they are being asked to take tests and what the tests mean for them personally, and some teachers inadvertently heighten their stress by emphasizing how important the tests are. Students hear rumors that doing poorly on the test means they will fail and have to repeat the grade or they think they will get in trouble or make their teacher mad if they miss a problem. Teachers can help by being upfront and honest with students about the tests-why they are taking them and how the results will be used. Even if teachers feel pressure to have students perform well on tests, it is unfair to transfer that pressure to students. Telling students that the test is low stakes for them personally can help alleviate their stress.
Rather than focusing on how important it is for students to do their best on the tests, teachers can send the message to students that the test is just measuring what they have already learned and helps to determine what they still need to learn. It is a tool for learning, not simply a measure of performance. This message affirms that learning is a process, not a product.
Testing does not have to be as frustrating and stressful as it often is for our students. Positive early experiences with testing can help shape students’ attitudes towards tests for years to come. Help young students learn to take the tests in stride and realize that learning is more important than performance.